On The Edge Films

Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds

Film School: Au Revoir les Enfants

1987/ France, West Germany, Italy

Director: Louis Malle

Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejto, Francinne Racette, Phillipe Morier- Genoud

Speaking about his film Au revoir les enfants, Louis Malle commented, ‘I’ve resented the fact that a number of people only saw the friendship between the two boys […] I think it has many more dimensions’. (Malle on Malle [ed.] Philip French, p.170) Discuss.

Louis Malle’s film Au Revoir les Enfants (Malle, 1987) is a prime example of French film making in reaction to the ‘nouvelle vague’ of 1960’s French cinema. Cinema of Malle’s era tended to reject the typicality’s of the new wave and sought to establish a strong sense of history/ nostalgia, whilst looking back to pieces of French history which were not covered previously in film until the late 70’s/ early 1980’s. Malle’s film Lacombe Lucienne (Malle, 1974) deals with the issue of conspirators amongst the French population in World War Two. A seemingly controversial issue that had not been really addressed or criticised through the medium of cinema.  It is this that drove Malle’s creative process at times and in the case of Au Revoir les Enfants (Malle, 1987) we can ascertain that his comment on the film may lead us to consider it in terms of a more critical perspective.

To first begin considering Malle’s ideas on the film it is appropriate to consider what we understand to be the film’s main driving point, which is the relationship between the two boys. Whether Malle likes this or not, at a first glance, this does appear to be the main focus of the director’s ambition, in his own words “we see the birth of a friendship between two children who are equally curious about certain things, probably a little smarter than the rest of the students, and how they find their affinities” (e.d French, 1993, p. 172) Jean and Julien form an incredibly close friendship over a relatively short space of time. At first Julien is wary of his new class mate but they share common ground with their love of books. Also Jean does not seek to humiliate Julien when he discovers that he wets the bed. It is an unexpected friendship to say the least. Julien is more of a rule breaker than most of the boys and despite his small stature he does command respect amongst his peers. Jean is almost the polar opposite but intrinsically both boys miss the comforts and security of their families and they find this in each other. However rather than this aspect of the film being its only and main focal point Malle points out “I thought it was important, little by little, to see the war breaking in” (e.d French, 1993, p. 170) Being placed within their somewhat privileged surroundings the constant presence of war seems redundant at times. But it looms over Jean and the other Jewish boys for with the benefit of hind sight we know that historically the boys will probably fail to escape the hands of the Nazi occupation.

This then is what Malle was trying to make a comment upon in his film. It is ultimately a comment on injustice and how after such a short period as friends the boys are torn apart by their religious fundamentals. Jean’s fate is sealed early on when we discover his faith and pitted against the Nazi Party and its goals it seems inevitable that he will be taken at some point in the film. Stackelberg summaries the Nazi’s aims which compound our understanding of Jean’s fate “Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 was to create the kind of ethnic and ideological unity and top-down authority that would prepare Germans for the war they would have to wage to achieve their long-term objectives” (Stackelberg, 2007, p. 154) Jews tended to be members of political oppositions to Hitler and the Nazi’s and the Holocaust can be considered as an exaggeration of the Nazi’s suspicions. Woven throughout Nazi propaganda was the idea of anti- Semitism which inevitably ended in systematic genocide. All of these events are occurring amidst the time and place that the film is set. However we are not always presented with this aura of fear that one might presume is present. Julien reacts with shock when he discovers Jean’s secret but we may consider that he is confused as to why Jean needs to hide his religion at all rather than the consequences that may occur by him being Jewish. Julien never really understands the severity of Jean’s situation until the film’s closing moments and it is this that summaries the atmosphere within the school. The war is present and encompassing but being behind the walls the boys experience a sense of removal from the atrocities. This is highlighted when Joseph says “Stop acting so pious. There’s a war going on, kid” (Malle, 1987) whereas Jean seems more aware, due to, events he has already suffered “Julien Quentin: You scared? [pause] Jean Bonnet: All the time.” (Malle, 1987) Malle seems to be making a comment for people to look beyond their own problems and see a wider cultural perspective and that as children we are never really aware of something until we experience it first-hand.

As previously mentioned Malle summarised an idea of nostalgia when making his films. His work was reactionary to the “new wave” films of the 1960’s.


Histories of cinema all agree that the New Wave represents a radical break: it spread new ways of producing and making films (cheaply, quickly and outside the mainstream).

(e.d Graham, 2009, p. 1)


Often films of this period explore the obscure and sought to produce films that coveted new ideas and that rarely looked back at history and tended to look forward to forge a new generation of cinema in keeping with the general mood and popular culture of the 1960’s. Powrie comments upon nostalgia “Disillusionment and failure of a sort are the appropriate conditions for nostalgia” (Powrie, 1997, p. 13) Malle appears to experience these feelings with the new wave cinema and his nostalgia encouraged him to look back at a period of French history often seen as dark and unrelenting. Powrie also comments upon Au Revoir les Enfants (Malle, 1987) “it is the only one which can be called nostalgic by virtue of its combination of historical reconstruction and evocation of childhood and its traumas” (Powrie, 1997, p. 15) This confirms our understanding of Malle’s position on nostalgia. Powrie talks of Julien and Jean’s traumas as if they are natural and recurrent which we know to be false. The trauma of these films stems from the historical elements for without which these the boys may never have met and their friendship would not have been broken by the injustices they suffer.


In addition Malle is not just looking back to criticise German actions in the war he also seeks to comment upon French activity during the occupation embodied in the ironic betrayal Joseph enacts upon the school. At the time of the film’s release the Klaus Barbie Trial continued in France and the issue of anti- Semitism had reared its head again in topical conversation. With Au Revoir les Enfants(Malle, 1987) along with Lacombe Lucienne (Malle, 1974) forced the French population to recognise and re- live certain aspects of the war that many wished to forget. Malle believed this to be a positive thing “He was one of the worst German war criminals in France during the Occupation. The effect of the trial in France was very emotional, and very good, because suddenly it brought back the period” (e.d French, 1993, p.178) the film was not planned to coincide with these events but through this coincidence Malle achieved his goal of recognition and in his own words “When I hear or read that most people in France didn’t know anything about the fate of Jews- that’s an incredible lie. If they didn’t know, it was because they didn’t want to know” (e.d French, 1993, p. 181).


In light of previous critical elements many may consider others irrelevant however there are others factors in Au Revoir les Enfants (Malle, 1987) that can be addressed. Firstly there is an issue of abandonment within the film; Julien is strongly attached to his mother who rules over his world in a very matriarchal way. We can take into consideration aspects of developmental psychology when we look at their relationship mainly through ideas of maternal deprivation:


Bowlby concluded that maternal deprivation- being deprived of one’s mother during the first five years of life- could seriously affect the child’s social development. Producing juvenile delinquency.

(Hayes, 1996, p. 685)


Julien obviously has a strong relationship with his mother which is defined through monotropy “infants form a special relationship with their mother which is quantitatively different from the relationship which they form with any other kind of person” (Hayes, 1996, p. 683) Julien acts in a rebellious nature once he is at school and shows severe signs of detachment, he is not outrightly troublesome but he does have a certain disregard for the rules in place at the school and this can be attributed to his Mother’s absence. Julien also leaves behind at school his privileged life style and comfortable home to be placed within the dark and dank surroundings within which the story is enacted. Malle envisioned this and then implemented it when filming “I seemed obvious to me that I should make the film in colour, yet it was going to be a film without colour” (e.d French, 1993, p. 174).

The foundation of Julien and Jean’s friendship is based on their love of literature. Through their readings and enjoyment of characters like Sherlock Holmes which acts as a form of escapism for Jean who is hiding in fear from the Gestapo “Escapism is a way of refocusing one’s attention on pleasant or enjoyable things, as opposed to the hard realities of the everyday world” (Anon, n.d, p. 1) Their love of books and stories is something taken almost directly from Malle’s life. “The very intense relationship between the two boys in the film is more my imagination than my memory” (e.d French, 1993, p. 179) Through this link between the boys Malle expresses his regret possibly that he never became as good friends with the real life Bonnet. The escapist nature of their friendship also gives the viewer hope that they may not actually be subjugated to the rule of the Gestapo but as the film progresses we see that this will probably not be the case as news from the war begins to creep into the school right up until the very moment that Nazi soldiers force their way into the school and remove the Jewish children.

In addition there is a case of intertextuality involved in the film “Texts, whether by be literary or non- literary, are viewed by modern theorists as lacking in any kind of independent meaning” (Allen, 2001, p.1) Allen’s meaning here is that contemporary texts rely upon other texts to add meaning and establish their own meanings and from this we can relate this to the film when the boys watch a Charlie Chaplin film. Malle notes “I chose The Immigrant because, first, it was one of the great ones, and second, it was an evocation of freedom for those Jewish children” (e.d French, 1993, p. 174) this is important as through this Malle shows how intertextuality can add to a film. The referencing of one brings with it the understanding that we are aware of already. “Chaplin was forbidden during the war, of course, by the Germans, not only because he was Jewish but also because he’d made The Great Dictator” (e.d French, 2003, p. 174) with Chaplin is embodied in the resistant nature of the priests within the school achieved through the simplicity of intertextuality.

The final observation to be made on the film is the paradoxical actions of the priests. On the one hand they are religious and rule abiding but on the other they completely disregard all rules imposed upon them by the Nazis and seek to break free from these. Thus forming the paradox as they are defending the freedom of Jewish children.


Jesus, the founder of Christianity, is depicted as one who regularly critiqued the Jewish religion, his ancestral religious orientation. At an early age, he was seen in the Jerusalem Temple debating the rabbis. Later in his adult ministry, he answered questions and publicly disputed the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes

(Brackney, 2010, p.1)


They are able to look beyond their religious obligations in order to protect the children’s lives as they obviously deem this to be more important. The parallels between the Jewish boys and the others are highlighted by the nature in which Julien ponders Jean’s faith. He considers him to be almost like an oddity. Obviously he has never met many Jews before and his mannerisms around Jean change when he makes his discovery. It must be noted that this is not a fictional construction by Malle. Many priests and catholic schools sought to give aid to Jewish children who were to be deported and sent to the work camps “I happen to have many Jewish friends of my generation who survived because they were hidden in Christian schools” (e.d French, 1993, p. 173) this is where Malle really looks back in a positive nostalgic sense to show that amongst all of the evil that was going on there was still a presence of good. This in turn promotes religion in a positive sense and reinforces Malle’s aims for the film. At times the priests do appear to adhere to their religious beliefs, they deliver a socially critical sermon in front of the middle class parents of the pupils directly criticising the people who maintain their way of life and Père Jean, who is shown to be arrested in Malle’s recreation but who in real life gave himself up “when all the people with him in the camp were put in a train, he asked to go with them” (e.d French, 1993, p. 181). The scene in which Jean is framed looking up at the stain glass window which depicts Jesus hanging from the cross embodies this sense of protection that the priests have given him. He is accepted for his innocence and not because of his faith.


In conclusion after deliberation we can see that Malle was correct in his opening statement, Au Revoir les Enfants (Malle, 1987) is not merely a tale of a friendship that was cut short. To label it as this is wholly inaccurate. Yes, we can acknowledge that without Julien and Jean there would be less drive for the narrative to draw upon but it is a many layered and socially critical film. Through its subtlety we really perceive the sense of horror that was evoked by the Nazi occupation of France and how it was to live in these troubled times without ever explicitly experiencing them. Malle’s memories are of injustice how a child could be hunted down merely because of his religion having never committed a crime in his life and who was likeable. Malle forces viewers to look back at this era of history in recognition and note the trials and tribulations that many of his generation experienced for a prolonged period of years. Also he worked in contrast to other film makers of his era by recounting events but also being proud of his French routes and glorifying certain aspects of French culture. However in addition to this the film takes on a further role and more importantly charts a period in Malle’s life not just based on fears of Nazi occupation and death.  Au Revoir les Enfants (Malle, 1987) is an attempt to summarise a turning point in his own life. It is a poignant memory “I will remember every second of that January morning until the day I die” (Malle, 1987) and probably where the levity of the world really hit him and from there began to grow up with recognition of events other than those that directly concerned him personally “I think it sort of focused me or at least made me extremely curious about things happening outside the very privileged environment in which I was raised” (e.d French, 1993, p. 168) All in all the film strives to make us understand and for Malle was a way of coming to terms with the traumatic event that shaped his life thereafter.

-Josh Senior


Allen, G (2001) Intertexuality. London. Routledge

Au Revoir les Enfants (1987) Directed by Louis Malle. France: Nouvelles Éditions de Films, MK2 Productions, Stella Film N.E.F. Filmproduktion und Vertriebs, Centre National de la Cinématographie, Soficas Investimage, Images Investissements, Sofica Créations, Rai Uno Radiotelevisione.

Brackney, W.H (2010) Studying Christianity. London. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Hayes, N (1996) Foundations of Psychology. Walton- on- Thames. Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd.

Lacombe Lucienne (1974) Directed by Louis Malle. France: Nouvelles Éditions de Films, Universal Pictures France, Vides Cinematografica, Hallelujah Films.

Malle on Malle (1993) [ed.] Philip French. Leicester. Faber and Faber Limited.

Powrie, P. (1997) French Cinema in the 1980’s. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Stackelberg, R. (2007) The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany. Abingdon. Routledge.

The French New Wave (2009) [ed.] Peter Graham. Basingstoke. Palgrave Macmillan.

What is Escapism? (Anon, no date) (online) Available at:http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-escapism.htm (Accessed: 15th January 2012)


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